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Friday, September 12, 2014

Connecting some dots on drilling wastewater

Sometimes, the process of making some sense out of the mass of information that’s constantly coming out about the impacts of unconventional natural gas development involves the ability to connect some dots.   

Wastewater from drilling provides a case in point.

This article from Inside Climate News reports on a new study published in the journal Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts that analyzed what's in the water that comes back out of a well after it’s been fracked and put into production – called produced water.

Organic compounds in produced waters from shale gas well, according to the report, shows that:
fracking-produced water shouldn't be allowed near drinking water…
[R]researchers identified 25 inorganic chemicals in the waste. Of those, at least six were found at levels that would make the water unsafe to drink—barium, chromium, copper, mercury, arsenic and antimony. Depending on the chemical, consuming it at high levels can cause high blood pressure, skin damage, liver or kidney damage, stomach issues, or cancer. 
But the study's innovation involved examining and identifying over 50 organic chemicals in the waste—an area that's been little studied previously. Some of these are potentially dangerous, depending on their concentrations, such as the cancer-causing toluene and ethylbenzene... 
Those findings are of obvious concern, but unfortunately, 
Researchers did not look closely at the waste's naturally occurring radioactive materials. 
That’s especially pertinent for Marcellus development, where NORM and TENORM are huge, looming, unresolved issues.

But there's more: 
According to the study authors, the most surprising find was the presence of group of organic compounds called halocarbons, some of which are potentially toxic. These chemicals are not native to the geology of the area being drilled; nor are they found in the man-made fluids purposefully injected down a well during fracking. 
These toxic chemicals result from chemical reactions that occur down-hole. That is an area that is very poorly understood, and needs lots more study, illumination - and regulation and reporting. Here's why:
[T]he study author…said the observed levels of these inorganic compounds are minimal and "not a cause for panic."
At higher levels, however, some of the observed halocarbons—including a type called organobromides, which has been associated with liver damage—could pose a public health risk. And their unanticipated presence indicates that the way wastewater is treated should be reviewed... 
(Incidentally, in saying “A single fracked well can use over 2 million gallons of water”, the article vastly understates the amount of water used, at least in the Marcellus play.)

Meanwhile, in Utah, state regulators fined an operator of wastewater impoundments for allowing fracking chemicals like methanol and other volatile organic compounds into the air. Previously, regulators had assumed that the emissions from these impoundments were minimal, but discovered that they were woefully wrong.

The article goes on to say that: 
Other states are beginning to impose stricter regulations. Pennsylvania might be a sign of things to come for pond regulations. In 2010, after the state had a spate of high-profile fracking water spills, including one that spilled 50,000 gallons of wastewater at a drilling site, the state beefed up enforcement of environmental regulations regarding ponds and now has some of the most stringent regulations in the nation, including requirements for groundwater monitoring and environmental remediation. 
Pennsylvania should NOT be the exemplar.  The state’s requirements are not nearly tough enough, because - connecting the dots - it's obvious that the water that comes back out of the well during after after fracking contains hazardous, volatile chemicals. It should not be allowed to be stored in impoundments for any duration.  These impoundments leak, have contaminated groundwater and soil, and present a severe public health risk - the apparent magnitude of which grows with each new study.  

Drilling wastewater impoundments must be banned.  Period.  Closed-loop, closed-container systems for all drilling-related fluids must be required.

Will regulators connect the dots?  

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